Originally published on Niti Central.
Delhi is a unique political entity. It is perhaps the only State in India that is directly governed by all three layers of Government – from the Central to the local with a State Government thrown in the middle. It is a City, a State and the National Capital making its politics high on symbolism and its governance complicated on jurisdiction. In a reflection of how flawed development priorities are in much of India, it is also a business capital for many thus a magnet for migrant labour from across India. In many ways Delhi is, demographically speaking, a mini-India with every community represented in different pockets across its vast territory.
The Delhi Assembly election may be of little direct consequence to law & order on the streets of Delhi or to the flow of sewage in its drains. But this election nevertheless holds immense political significance to the rest of India for Delhi has come to represent the ethos of Middle India.
Middle India for all the paradoxes in its political opinions, lazy attitude to voting and elections and all pervasive cynicism towards politicians and political parties has been the bellwether for what counts as the national mood. Some of this may be rooted in access to media and information and some to disproportionate influence on opinion-making. Nevertheless what Middle India thinks has been synonymous with mostly what India thinks and Delhi has been the petri-dish to observe and measure that ‘national mood’.
Something has been afoot in Delhi for about more than two years now. A made-for-television revolution two years back is now a budding political movement in Delhi in the form of the Aam Admi Party. As Pratap Bhanu Mehta, writing in the Indian Express, so eloquently put it
“to not acknowledge that something new is afoot would also be a mistake. The potential demonstration effect that AAP’s success may have on politics in other cities is not negligible. While politics is often local, successful examples are empowering. It will force national parties to raise their game”
It would be a fatal mistake to write off or be dismissive of the Aam Admi Party for it is finding resonance in Middle India in unexpected pockets. Back when I was still working with Infosys, one day I was surprised to receive an e-mail from a colleague who was not known to express much political opinion. He and a few other colleagues had composed a song and recorded it with their own voices. The song, it would surprise many of you, was dedicated to the Aam Admi Party. Last week my dormant and nearly dead IIT Mumbai Class Mailing List got a wakeup call in the form of an email invite to a conference call by Arvind Kejriwal for fund-raising. A nice debate ensued, partly on my account, on Kejriwal’s economic worldview and negative politics. The bottom-line however is from auto drivers to IIT alumni the upstart Kejriwal political party is picking up sympathisers if not necessarily registered voters.
There is much to worry about Kejriwal’s economic worldview and the company he keeps. At the one end of the spectrum you have Binayak Sen who has been held guilty of Maoist collaboration in the past. At the other end of the spectrum you have Prashant Bhushan whose vision of a Lokpal is nothing short of Robin Hood style vigilante socialism. Somewhere in the middle is academic and pollster Yogendra Yadav who far from articulating a vision of governance for Delhi has been more busy peddling muddled theories on why Narendra Modi was dangerous to his “idea of India”.
All of this notwithstanding the Arvind Kejriwal-led AAP poses a political challenge that the BJP can ill afford to ignore. A bit of electoral history would be in order here. In the 2009 Andhra Pradesh Assembly election there was an undercurrent of anti-incumbency against the Congress. The Congress, which got 38 per cent of votes in Andhra in 2004, lost ground and got only 36 per cent of votes in 2009. But look what happened to the anti-Congress vote between 2004 and 2009 in Andhra: It got split with the Congress returning to power in Andhra Pradesh thanks to a third party that got 16 per cent of the vote – Chiranjeevi’s PRP. It is a different matter that the 16 per cent anti-Congress votes that went to Chiranjeevi came right back to the Congress’ kitty a few months later when Chiranjeevi betrayed his voters and merged his party’s seats with the Congress to bail it out of a political crisis in that State. Similar was the story in the 2009 Lok Sabha election in Tamil Nadu when the anti-UPA vote was split by the Vijaykant-led DMDK to benefit UPA ally Karunanidhi’s DMK at the expense of Jayalalitha’s ADMK.
Back in April of 2011 when the Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal-led anti-corruption movement was at its peak, in a Column in The Pioneer titled “A moment that should have been the BJP’s” this is what I had written:
The ‘India Against Corruption’ motley group of NGO activists has succeeded where the BJP has failed… At a pivotal moment when the middle class angst needed political leadership the BJP failed to provide it.
Much of what was written in April 2011 remains true today of the BJP’s campaign for the Delhi Assembly election. The only big difference between 2011 and 2013 in the BJP’s campaign is Narendra Modi as the recent rally in Japanese Park, Rohini, demonstrated. But alas Narendra Modi will not be on the ballot in Delhi in December. Elections, especially those in Middle India continue to be about the relative credibility differential. When a middle class voter in Delhi steps into that polling booth it will be a relative choice between ‘Sheila Dikshit’, ‘Arvind Kejriwal’, ‘?’ from the BJP, and ‘NOTA’.
The BJP’s current strategy is vague on the leadership question while it has adopted a “sum of all vote banks” from a messaging standpoint with a carrot here and bone thrown there. This is unlikely to fetch it dividends. This is the same failed strategy from the Uttar Pradesh Assembly election where the BJP came a cropper in 2012. Attempting the same flawed strategy and hoping for a different outcome riding on the NaMo + anti-incumbency wave is not a guarantee for success. As survey after survey are showing the BJP may level the scores with the Congress but may failt to cross the half-way mark, leaving the field open for Kejriwal to do a Chiranjeevi.
A win in Delhi is important for symbolic reasons. To win Delhi the BJP needs a credible message to break through the clutter of rhetoric from the Congress and the AAP. It also needs a radical messenger who can outshine both Sheila Dikshit and Arvind Kejriwal. To attempt to articulate the former without resolving the question on the latter would be a fatal mistake the BJP could ill-afford at this stage when a national momentum is building up behind its Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi.
BJP in Delhi needs a radical new face to dramatically alter the calculus of the upcoming Assembly election.